Biotic versus abiotic controls on bioavailable soil organic carbon

Joseph C. Blankinship, Joshua P. Schimel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Processes controlling microbial access to soil organic matter are critical for soil nutrient cycling and C stabilization. The bioavailability of soil organic matter partly depends on the rate that substrates become water-soluble, which is determined by some combination of biological, biochemical, and purely abiotic processes. Our goal was to unravel these biotic and abiotic processes to better understand mechanisms controlling the dynamics of bioavailable soil organic carbon (SOC). We sampled soils in a California annual grassland from manipulated plots with and without plants to help distinguish bioavailable SOC generated from mineral-associated organic matter versus from plant detritus (i.e., the “light fraction”). In the laboratory, soils were incubated for 8 months under all possible combinations of three levels of moisture and two levels of microbial biomass using continuous chloroform sterilization. We measured cumulative carbon dioxide (CO2) production and the net change in soil water-extractable organic C (WEOC) to quantify C that was accessed biologically or biochemically. Under the driest conditions, microbes appeared to primarily access WEOC from recent plant C, with the other half of CO2 production explained by extracellular processes. These results suggest that dry, uncolonized conditions promote the adsorption of WEOC onto mineral surfaces. Under wetter conditions, microbial access increased by two orders of magnitude, with a large concomitant decrease in WEOC, particularly in soils without plant inputs from the previous growing season. The largest increase in WEOC occurred in wet sterilized soil, perhaps because exoenzymes and desorption continued solubilizing C but without microbial consumption. A similar amount of WEOC accumulated in wet sterilized soil whether plants were present or not, suggesting that desorption of mineral-associated C was the abiotic WEOC source. Based on these results, we hypothesize that dry-live and wet-uncolonized soil microsites are sources of bioavailable SOC, whereas wet-live and dry-uncolonized microsites are sinks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number10
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalSoil Systems
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2018


  • Microbial access to soil organic matter
  • Plant removal
  • Soil sterilization
  • Water-extractable organic carbon
  • Water-soluble soil carbon

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Soil Science
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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